in From the Archives

Sibelius and Finnish-Karelian folk music

by Veijo Murtomäki

Sibelius’s perception of Kalevala as ‘pure music, theme and variations’ led him into the discovery of a unique tone system totally different from that of Schoenberg’s chromatic tonality.

It is a common truth – and an area of increasing interest for the musical studies too – that the 19th century was a century of national thinking. As a result of this folkstories/fairytales and folksongs were collected and published practically in all of the European countries. The movement touched greatly the composition history of the nineteenth century, and almost all art music composers got influences from their national heritage. It involved not only composers coming from so called ‘national cultures’ but also from the old Western European nations, like the Germans and the Austrians.

This was the case also with the Scandinavian and Russian composers, and among them, with Jean Sibelius, who during his early career felt a strong spiritual affinity with the Russian nationalistic composers, ‘The Five’, gathered around Balakirev, and based his creative work, much alike his Russian colleagues, to a great extent on the Finnish-Karelian folk music. This is obvious for every serious researcher of Sibelius’s music, although later in his life Sibelius tried to conceal and minimise the deep influence he got from the folk music, as he tried to gain a profile as a universal composer.

Resurrection of folk poetry

In Finland, Elias Lönnrot (1802–84) collected and formulated the Finnish national epic Kalevala (the first version in 1835) as well as the collection of lyric poetry, the Kanteletar in 1840. Although Lönnrot added to the Kanteletar 23 song and 20 rune melodies, the honour of having been the first systematic collector of Finnish-Karelian folk melodies belongs to Axel August Borenius (1846–1931), whose catch was till 1895 almost 800 tunes.

When Sibelius grew up in the small town of Hämeenlinna he had, through a happy coincidence, as one of this teachers at the lyceum the composer Arvid Genetz (1852–1930), who had collected Finnish folksongs with above mentioned A. A. Borenius. Sibelius became during the school time acquainted with the style of the Finnish folkmusic and folksong via Genetz; he admitted later that he had received from Genetz ‘some impulses’. In addition to this, the young Sibelius heard probably more than once ‘a village fiddler playing polkas and dances’, and as a practicing musician Sibelius played ad hoc variations on the piano upon the tune The Coppersmith’s Chantey.

During his studies in Vienna in 1890–91, Sibelius suddenly started again reading the Kalevala and he was inspired by its language and epic character, telling about ancient heroes, who were also musicians with magical powers. He wrote to Aino Järnefelt, his fiancée, that ‘the Kalevala strikes me as extraordinarily modern and to my ears is pure music, theme and variations’.

Like a folk-song

In Vienna he composed also his first piece hinting towards the awareness of the Finnish folk song style: the song Drömmen (The Dream) Op. 13 No. 5 was written in the night of 8th of January in 1891, on the basis of the letter Sibelius sent his wife Aino that day. In it he says:
‘It is new [of its kind] and Finnish too. I really do believe in Finnish music, although ‘the experts’ sneer at it. Its melodicious, strangely melancholic monotony, which can be found in all Finnish melodies, is very typical, although it is actually a mistake.’

The last part of the sentence (italicised by this writer) is a direct echo of the idea that Borenius had about the Finnish folksong, as we can see later.

The song is, in despite of some modern compositional features, in its characteristics very Finnish. Firstly, the melody is using in the A-section (mm. 1–10) the minor pentachord, based on F, which is typical to ancient folk melodies. Only in the shortened repeat of the A section (mm. 25–28) the pentachord is expanded by the raised 6th and the natural 7th degrees with the final culmination and the dramatic question: ‘Var är kyssen?’ (Where is the kiss?). The middle B section (mm. 11–24) is based on raised tonic, on F sharp, and the F sharp pentachord is exceeded only once, at the moment when the voice reaches its top note, F sharp 2, with the word ‘glädje’ (joy). (Ex. 1)


Paraske and Kullervo

After having come back home from Vienna in June of 1891, Sibelius possibly met already during the summer but at latest in December the famous runic singer Larin Paraske (1833–1904). According to Yrjö Hirn, his fellow traveller, Sibelius ‘was anxious to hear what the Karelian runic melodies were like when they were sung in an authentic way. Exactly how much this meant for Sibelius’s works inspired by the Kalevala I would not like to say, I do remember this much however: that he listened to her with great attention and made notes on her inflections and rhythm.’

We do know what it meant for Sibelius. He sent Aino a postcard (December 21, 1891), where he had written the first version of the main theme of the second movement of his Kullervo Symphony, to be finished some four months later. The theme is in B Dorian mode, ending on the fifth degree above the B finalis. (Ex. 2)


Shemeikka, manly and noble

In summer of the year 1892 Jean and Aino went to Eastern Finland, not only to have their honeymoon there, but also because Sibelius had got the idea of collecting himself folksongs – partially in order to finance the trip. When he met in Korpiselkä Petri Shemeikka (1825–1915), the legendary runic singer, Sibelius, according to his later statement, ‘found in Shemeikka an ancient spirit so manly and noble that my visit and stay at him was more valuable than any of my best study trips.’ This is indeed a striking confession and, at the same time, a testimony of the deep and decisive impression the encounter with the genuine folk music had on his musical language. In his written report to the University of Helsinki (November 11, 1892), Sibelius gives only four melodies, the last of which he considered as the eldest of them and the basis for all the runic melodies he had heard, together 20 kantele tunes, 50 laments (itkuvirsi) and 50 melody variants for the story of Marjatta. (Ex. 3)


In the spirit of Kalevala

This experience burst out in Sibelius’s compositions created in the spirit of the Kalevala and using the folk music intonations as the basis for his own melodic writing. The fruits of it we can find in several subsequent pieces: in Venematka (The Boat Journey, 1893), Heitä, koski, kuohuminen (Leave of Foaming, Cataract, 1893) and Rakastava (The Lover, 1894) for male choir, to the poems of Kalevala and Kanteletar. Further in the Karelia Music, the second theme of the Ouverture imitates the runic melodies, whereas the Tableau I, Karelian home, includes even a literal citation of the most basic version of the runic song (Ex. 4). Notice that the melody heard sung by Petri Shemeikka has been harmonised in a major or Ionian mode, and by major chords! In addition to these, his first opera for piano, the Six Impromptus Op. 5 (1893) and the Sonata in F major Op. 12 (1893), rest strongly on the runic songs.


Sibelius was also influenced by Karelian kantele music. Already during his student time in Helsinki Sibelius was at a big masquerade ‘disguised as a Finnish kantele player and had therefore learned some folksongs on the kantele’ (letter February 3, 1889 to oncle Pehr Sibelius), the Finnish national instrument he was capable of handling and for which he wrote also a couple of pieces. After having taken a look at some kantele pieces by Karelian players, like those of Fedja Happo and Teppana Jänis, and having heard authentic kantele playing – for instance Maanitus, recorded in 1949 by Vanja Tallas (1876–1952), the last representative of the ancient tradition – it is easy to notice that Sibelius has in his early piano music a lot of kantele associations: especially in the Impromptus Nos. 2–4, and also in all movements of the Piano Sonata. (Ex 5)


Music editor

Sibelius encountered still later the runic singing. In 1895, a new edition of Kalevala was planned to be published with a commentary and a separate appendix containing some representative runic melodies, Sibelius was chosen the expert to furnish the volume with musical examples. Originally only two or three melodies were thought to be enough to give an ordinary reader an idea about the runic singing. But when Sibelius met Borenius in order to consult him, he quickly realised that just a few melodies were not enough for the purpose. So he proposed to the editor that 40 melodies had to be included in the new edition; however, only 17 were accepted to accompany the new edition.

These melodies, chosen to the new Kalevala edition appendice, use most of the time only the range of a pentachord; eight of them touch also the 6th degree, whereas only one has the range of a tetrachord. It is interesting to notice that in 11 melodies the mode is major, and only in 6 cases the mode is minor. Thus the Finnish proverb that ‘playing is made of sorrows, fashioned of griefs’ is not true at all. As Borenius said, ‘in our epic poetry one seeks in vain after the traces of melancholy’! Most of the melodies chosen by Sibelius follow the standard binary structure, while some of them consist of more than two phrases: one of melodies has seven phrases, and three melodies include four phrases. These more extensive structures come close to Sibelius’s statement about Kalevala as ‘theme and variations’.

Lullaby for Lemminkäinen

Sibelius’s most important encounter with the folk music occurred when he applied for the position of the musical director at the Helsinki University in 1896. He could base his academic trial lecture in his experience of listening to genuine runic singers as well as on the co-operation with Borenius and studying the latter’s archives of melodies. In his lecture ‘Some reflections on Folk music and its influence on the development of Art music’ he for the first and only time formulated his ideas about the modes contained in the folksongs and the possibilities of harmonising the modal melodies.

Finnish mode – Dorian mode

Sibelius says in his paper that ‘the ancient Finnish folk melodies do not have any dominant or tonic, thus nor the finalis, but simply five tones – d, e, f, g, a – and the two tones, b and c naturals, are joined to these only, when the melody is culminating.’ (See Ex. 1) This results in the Dorian mode, whereas the ‘Nordic mode reminds the Aeolian one, having thus the tones d, e, f, g, a, b flat and c, although the upper degrees are usually sung higher’ [=as b natural and c sharp], thus resulting in the Aeolian-Ionian or the minor-major scale.

According to Sibelius, the melancholy and monotony of the Finnish folksong is not ’caused by the folktune itself, but by its one-sided harmonisation’. Sibelius’s own solution to this problem was the idea that the D-oriented minor pentachord was ‘resting on the lower pentachord that has as its basis the tone G. Thus it is the ninth chord that we have as the basic structure for the melodies discussed.’ He admits later that ‘the great significance of the folktune is based on its instructive features. A composer who has a thorough knowledge of the folkmusic of his home country has thus a different idea about the issue than the others.’ The tone system, as ‘our modern tonality is in the state of instability, must be found’, in Sibelius’s opinion, ‘alive in the folktune.’ Sibelius finishes his lecture by the credo: ‘all the so-called interesting turns, modulations and so forth, have only passing value, unless their seed is embedded in the folkmusic.’


In Sibelius’s music the consequences of his thinking and ideas are clearly to be seen. His melodic writing follows these principles: the Aeolian mode is often transformed into the Dorian or Aeolian-Ionian, when the minor pentachord is exceeded and the melody reaches its culmination. In his harmonisation Sibelius uses parallel chords that move both upwards and downwards along the minor-major scale (sometimes also along the major-minor-scale), and the basic sonority, that of the ninth chord, can be found everywhere in his music, still in the seventh symphony. Very often he just puts a pedal-note a fifth below the finalis, creating a ‘subdominant ninth chord’ effect.

In the song Drömmen we find the Aeolian-Ionian harmonisation right at the beginning. Sibelius’s way of moving the chords is functionally neutral; although the chords resemble dominant and subdominant chords (mm. 1–6), they shall not be interpreted to fulfil these functions. The F sharp minor section uses also the raised Aeolian-Ionian 6th and 7th degrees. The climax occurs at the dominant ninth chord, to resolve temporarily into E minor. At the end of the piece the D natural gives its place to the D flat, thus transforming the mode into F Aeolian. (Ex. 6)


The same techniques of using the Aeolian-Ionian mode as the source of the harmonisation can be found almost anywhere in his (early) output: in the Karelia Ouverture, jn the Ballad Skogsrået (The Wood-Nymph, 1894/5), and especially in the six Finnish Folksongs Arranged for Piano (1902–03).

The otherness and the archaic song

What is crucial in the case of Sibelius is that he found in the ‘otherness’ of the archaic song a new world of possibilities for the modern composer. He could create on the basis of the ancient modality, still left in the runic singing, an alternative tone system totally different from that of Schoenberg’s chromatic tonality and write also an entire symphony, the sixth symphony, based on modal hierarchies. Thus Sibelius the composer was a modern rune singer a bridge-builder between the ancient and modern musical worlds.

This article is based on a lecture given by Murtomäki at the Fourth International Jean Sibelius Conference in Texas (at the North Texas University) in January 2005, and was first published in FMQ 3/2005.